The State of Online Travel Media 2018

by Renuka Sastri + Skift Team - Jul 2018

Skift Research Take

The majority of first travel searches worldwide have no mention of a brand or destination, putting publishers of digital destination information in a uniquely influential position. Today, travelers have an overwhelming number of options, and publishers are challenged to differentiate themselves.

Report Overview

This report examines destination content available to help travelers choose their next destination. We’ll explore the web presence of traditional travel guide publishers and magazines like Lonely Planet and National Geographic Travel, digital firsts like TripAdvisor and Thrillist, along with Google and the three largest travel booking platforms. We’ll also look into coverage of niche needs (hint: there’s not much), and the opportunity to make the complicated research process a little less so for travelers.

What You'll Learn From This Report

  • How travelers pick their next destination, how destination selection methods varies by age, and the channels travelers use for research
  • Detailed overviews and analyses of 48 online publishers of informative content that help travelers pick their destination
  • How duplicative content of the travel publishing space calls for differentiation and consolidation
  • How personalization and mobile will continue to drive the future of online travel media

Executive Summary

Travel preferences and writing styles are right up there with food and friends for being deeply personal choices. We analyzed the desktop sites of nearly 50 destination information publishers and found every flavor of content and visual presentation. The publishers exist on a continuum that’s heavy on content at one end and heavy on technology at the other. With some exceptions, publishers who have transitioned their print publications online have deep and rich content to inspire and plan travel to a broad range of destinations around the world. However, many lack the contemporary tools to tailor recommendations to a traveler’s unique needs and preferences. New entrants with artificial-intelligence-enabled recommendation engines are promising, but need access to quality travel information, which is expensive to produce.

There is an increasing call to address travel planning needs for the LGBTQI community, African Americans, and those with accessibility challenges. While there is plenty of generic content duplicated for the top destinations (Vegas, London, Paris), there is very little to find outside of niche websites like GayTravel.com, Out Traveler, and Travel Noire. Finding good travel planning information for those with a range of accessibility challenges is particularly difficult: there is limited information even for those traveling with a wheelchair.

And speaking of duplicative content, we will likely continue to see consolidation in this space. Several travel guide publishers, notably AAA, Arrival Guides, Lonely Planet, Rick Steves, Fodor’s, and Frommer’s have similar content. There are some differences of course, but most follow the model of printed travel guide information transferred to the web with three-day itineraries, destination information, and editor’s picks. In late 2017, APA Publications Group, publisher of Insight Guides, acquired Rough Guides.

Given the cost of producing this content, and travelers insatiable need for more immersive experiences, our prognosis is that consolidations will continue, with DMOs and other sites licensing data from a smaller number of players. We will also see the collapse and closure of those online travel publishers too reliant on a pageview-driven advertising model rather than subscriptions, transactions, or sales of physical products.

TRAVELER RESEARCH PATTERNS

The picture that emerges from reviewing recent research on travel planning is this: U.S. travelers are looking for inspiration on where to travel, and despite many mobile-first habits in other areas, they’re still looking on web rather than mobile sites for the early phase. And the research process isn’t necessarily enjoyable for all travelers.
 

Destination Selection

Findings from 2017 Worldwide Travel Path to Purchase Report conducted by comScore on behalf of TripAdvisor found that travelers don’t often have a clear destination in mind or even a specific hotel, airline, or online travel agency brand from which to purchase their trip when they begin their research. When looking at their very first online search in the travel planning process, the study found that 73% of all first searches worldwide and 63% of all first travel searches in the U.S. in 2017 were generic with no brand or destination mentioned.

Exhibit 1: Most travelers start with generic searches when beginning their travel research, most often without even a destination included in the first search.

Source: comScore, Worldwide Travel Path to Purchase Report 2017

 

This is supported by the American Multi-Generational Travel Trends report by Expedia Media Solutions, which looked at the data generationally. The online travel agency found that younger generations are more destination indecisive, with 9% saying they don’t have a destination in mind, and 55% saying they are deciding between two or more. Nearly half of boomers had not already decided on a destination. As we’ll see later in the report, this leaves a lot of room for travel publishers to inspire destination choice.

In terms of destination choices, data from Skift Research’s U.S. Experiential Traveler Trends Survey 2018 shows that meaningful travel experiences can be found even in the most popular areas. 33% of respondents said they prefer keeping to popular areas and activities, 30% prefer going off the beaten path, and 34% have no preference. This becomes important when analyzing travel information offerings: There is a market for guides that focus on popular destinations and the “must-see” sights, and guides for travelers who want to be off the beaten path.

Leisure trips that precede or extend planned business travel are becoming more popular. ComScore’s 2017 State of Travel Survey found that 36% of U.S. travelers are dual or “bleisure” travelers. This presents an opportunity where the destination is pre-selected, but activities and experiences are not.
 

Exhibit 2: Over one-third of travelers travel for leisure and business, with over half of those taking mixed business-leisure trips.

Source: comScore, 2017 State of Travel Survey

 

Generational Variance

Qubit’s 2018 Travel Survey puts some numbers around known generational differences in travel research and booking:

  • 42% of travelers under 35 are more likely to use a mobile device when it comes to looking for travel inspiration and 36% use their mobile device to book travel. In contrast, 24% of those over 35 use a mobile device to search for travel, and 20% rely on mobile to book.
  • Travelers under 35 go on vacation more. 22% go on four or more vacations per year compared to 14% for those older than 35.
  • Three traveler segments that respond best to personalization are: consumers under 35, families and last-minute bookers. In the U.S., 78% of travelers under 35 found recommendations helpful, versus 64% of those over age 35.
  • Customer reviews are now extremely important to all consumers researching travel, regardless of the age bracket that they fall into.

 

Exhibit 3: Regardless of generation, travelers look for deals, informative content, and reviews before choosing a vacation destination.

Source: Expedia Media Solutions, American Multi-Generational Travel Trends, 2017

 

Sources of Information

Skift Research’s U.S. Experiential Traveler Trends Survey 2018 found that travel review sites (e.g. TripAdvisor), family and friends (likely accessed through social media as well), and search engine results are the top three sources for travel planning information.

Exhibit 4: Travel review websites are considered the most important source of information during travel planning, followed by advice from friends and/or family

Source: Skift Research, U.S. Experiential Traveler Trends Survey 2018

 

In the same Skift Research study, travelers were asked if they enjoyed the trip planning process. Only 31% strongly agreed and 30% were neutral or did not agree.

In February 2018, Hitwise data reported by tnooz showed that Tripadvisor.com remained the number one resource for travel planning — it was the top website that is not a search engine or email service driving traffic to the travel industry.

 

Exhibit 5: TripAdvisor is the top website driving traffic to the travel industry that is not a search engine or email server

Source: tnooz and Hitwise, 2018

 

From Web to Mobile

While the use of mobile phones has increased rapidly for in-trip planning, websites dominate for pre-purchase planning today. However, comScore notes in its Worldwide Travel Path to Purchase Report that millennials are far more open to researching and booking leisure travel via mobile devices.
 

Social

Social channels continue to increase in importance for travelers of all generations. According to the 2017 report American Multi-Generational Travel Trends by Expedia Media Solutions, almost 90% of Gen Z travelers indicated that their destination selections are influenced by social media searches or connections. They report that Facebook and Instagram are the most popular and influential platforms used for this purpose, but this generation is also more likely to use Snapchat for travel inspiration than other generations.

 

Exhibit 6: The top channel across generations is Facebook, followed by Instagram, Twitter and Pinterest

Source: Expedia Media Solutions, American Multi-Generational Travel Trends, 2017

 

DESTINATION INFORMATION ONLINE

We analyzed the web presence of 75 publishers that help travelers with informative content to pick their destination and profiled 48 in four categories. We focused on sites with destination descriptions, recommended itineraries, and travel tips. Many, but not all, of these sites were complemented by blog/travelogue content. The websites were chosen based on traffic estimates by SimilarWeb.com and industry reports. For all websites, we looked at a sampling of destinations: popular (London and Vegas), emerging (Madagascar and Singapore), and somewhat obscure (Cartagena and Malta). This report does not cover trip planning tools (e.g. maps, itinerary tools, etc.), mobile, or social media sites.

 

From Print to Digital: Travel Guides

This section analyzes the online presence of travel guide publishers with a legacy in print.
 

Lonely Planet: As befits the leader of the travel guide pack, Lonely Planet has the most comprehensive and visually stimulating content with good integration of text, photos, video and offers for printed guides. For the traveler who wants to figure out the next destination, the landing page is a dream. The content is tailored to their brand promise of independent travel. Blogs nicely complement the city and country guides and provide a more current and frequently off-the-beaten path options even for popular destinations.

Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree forum, which predates TripAdvisor is still there after a brief period offline. However, it’s much less prominent on the site. Lonely Planet is one of the few sites that had any gay-friendly content. There were nearly 2,000 results for “wheelchair” but the information was limited, with brief mentions of accessibility. The site hands off to Viator for activities and Booking.com for hotels.


While each has their nuances, the travel guides below are largely similar, with a focus on popular destinations and activities.
 

Fodors.com: Fodors.com is an inviting mix of recommendations and destination guides, text and visuals. Content is organized under destinations (with links to printed guides), trip ideas, hotels, news (the blog), forums and – unusually among similar sites reviewed – cruises. The search appliance does the website no justice and would make a usability expert weep. Hashtags in each article would help discovery. Content is available in print, mobile apps and as eBooks.

The blog is compelling, with articles like the Fodor’s No List 2018, that address topics like overtourism and racial tensions. The Trip Finder feature has some fun aspects, with articles like Dark Places: The World’s Most Morbidly Fascinating Destinations. Fodor’s was the first travel guide publisher to produce LGBTQ content, according to the company, but there’s not much content there now. The meta search handoff to hotel bookings resulted in unrelenting pop-under ads and tours and activities bookings go to Getyourguide.com. Fodor’s is owned by Internet Brands, which also owns FlyerTalk and WikiTravel.


 

Frommer’s: Frommer’s has half the site traffic as Fodor’s, reflecting some of the tumultuous transitions to Google and back. The website features a full array of travel guide content: destination information on the most popular places, trip ideas, a forum and links to bookings. This is one of the few sites with a dedicated LGBT category under the “Trip Ideas” menu item and makes recommendations on places to visit rather than simply listing individual attractions or events. The site is visibly ad supported. Hotels hand off to Booking.com; car rental, cruise and vacations through Dunhill Travel. Similar to Fodor’s, Frommer’s uses a Google search appliance, which is not a good user experience.


 

RickSteves.com: Supported by a following on public television public radio, RickSteves.com provides guidance for Americans traveling to popular destinations in Europe. The content is written in Rick Steves’ signature style and is paired with blogs and a reader forum. The site has recommended itineraries, tours by Rick Steves, travel planning info and links to books and audio guides. RickSteves.com remains popular, with 2.7 million visits in June and rising. Guidebooks are available for sale in print or digital formats.


 

Moon: Along with Rick Steves, Moon published by Avalon, an imprint of Hachette Book Group. Moon.com has itineraries, text descriptions and links to local attraction websites. One of the early proponents of independent travel, Moon has lots of recommendations for weekend city trips, national parks, and road trips. Of note is the content for travelers with physical disabilities, with articles tailored to or referencing accessibility. There’s new content in every section but the layout is dated, and traffic is down significantly from January, according to data from SimilarWeb.


 

RoughGuides.com: With total visits of 1.6 million in May 2018, RoughGuides.com ranks in traffic similarly to Moon.com. There is plenty of compelling inspiration on the homepage, and a clean layout draws the reader in to explore trending destinations. There is content for the usual top destinations, but Rough Guides shines much better for those destinations that are off the beaten path. Of the sites reviewed, Rough Guides and Lonely Planet are the most similar, though the latter has much more content. The RoughGuides.com site links off to World Nomad for insurance, Booking.com for accommodations, Viator and TourRadar for activities and tours and has prominent offers for print and eBook guides throughout.

In late 2017, APA Publications Group, the publisher of Insight Guides and Berlitz, acquired Rough Guides from Penguin Random House, which also published the Dorling Kindersley (DK) imprint. According to The Bookseller magazine, APA Chief executive René Frey said Rough Guides was the “perfect enhancement” to its current offering — Insight Guides are a stronger brand in Asia, while Rough Guides is stronger in the UK, and the biggest brand it will have in terms of online reach.” DK also produces the Eyewitness travel guide series, but it is not supported by a web presence beyond book sales on www.dk.com.
 

AAA Travel Guides:
the online counterpart to the printed TourBook travel guides for North America and the Caribbean. The guides cover popular things to do and see, with three-day itineraries, lists of activities, nightlife, performing arts, etc. Each guide includes AAA Editor notes and links to AAA Inspector reviews and ratings for hotels, restaurants and attractions. The content is integrated with TripTik Travel Planner routing and booking capabilities for restaurant reservations, and air, car rental and hotel bookings. Navigation is linear and centered around cities launched from the home page.


 

Arrival Guides: the only one of this group that doesn’t publish a printed guide. While there is plenty of direct traffic to the site, the business is oriented towards licensing content to convention and visitors bureaus (CVBs), online travel agencies (OTAs), etc. The landing page has a nice mix of recommended destinations. Top destinations feature things to see and do. Listings contain brief descriptions and contact info, but we found no information for Cartagena or Madagascar. A “Themes to Explore” section for family, romantic and other types of destinations is buried at the bottom of the website. Video on the site links to an updated YouTube channel branded ArrivalTV. All the guides are downloadable to an easy PDF, which is a handy feature, but the content is so slim at times that it’s not worth it.
 

Insight Guides: Along with Lonely Planet and Frommer’s, Insight Guides too has had its share of turbulence. In 2010, Langenscheidt shut down its U.S. operations, and in 2014, Insight Guides and Berlitz Publishing were sold to APA Publications Group. Since 2015, InsighTravel.com has pivoted to a trip planning service with bookable itineraries. However, buried at the bottom of the site is a link to blog posts, which add color and content to complement the trip plans. Links to travel guides direct to Amazon for print purchases. Some of the articles have a handy “Take me there” feature that turns the itinerary into a customizable trip plan, ready for a quote. Browsing trip itineraries provides lots of ideas, with the number of days and pricing estimates.

 

Michelin: Publisher of the famed Michelin Green Guides operates several disconnected sites for travel information: TravelGuides.Michelin.com, Guide.Michelin.com and ViaMichelin.com. Destination information on TravelGuides.Michelin.com covers France in detail, and 30 countries around the world. Each destination has a curated list of hotels and attractions, with links to Booking.com. The “Where to go when” feature is handy, with recommendations by category, like for weekend or romantic getaways, as well as by month. Getting to Andalucía, Spain for a weekend might be a reach for those in the U.S. and Canada, but it’s well-tailored to European audiences. Printed guides are available through Amazon. There is no integration with ViaMichelin, a trip routing tool, which seems like a missed opportunity.

 

Travel Guides: Summary of Desktop Sites

Publisher Estimated Total Visits to Desktop for May 2018 (in millions) URL Summary and Monetization Model
AAA NA www.aaa.com/travelguides Travel Information for major cities, national parks, and other destinations across North America, Mexico, and the Caribbean.

Monetization: Membership dues, ads in printed guidebooks, licensed use of Diamond Ratings

Arrival Guides 0.4 www.arrivalguides.com Introductory content on popular destinations, with brief descriptions for listings. Focus is on popular destinations, but homepage has interesting blog content on others (e.g. Blekinge, Sweden). No printed guides.

Monetization: content licensing with OTAs, DMOs, and other distribution partners

Bradt Travel Guides 0.1 www.bradtguides.com Wide coverage of unusual destinations like Armenia, Kazakhstan and Sierra Leone. Site content links to printed travel guides. One of the smaller sites we reviewed, BradtGuides.com supports a print offering of 200 travel and wildlife titles. Bradt offers tours and partners with TourRadar for additional group tours.

Monetization: sales of guidebooks and tours

Budget Travel 0.3 www.budgettravel.com Broad list of domestic U.S. destinations but the user interface makes it difficult to find what’s there. “Best Budget Destinations in America 2018” video series offers quick snapshots of destinations, highlighting local flavor. Hotels link to Booking.com.

Monetization: hotel links to Booking.com, ads

Damron NA www.damron.com Website for the “classic gay men’s travel guide since 1964.” Web content focused on North America, with some information for Europe, and scattered listings elsewhere. Site is touted as the #1 gay and lesbian travel resource. If that is indeed the case, there’s plenty of opportunity in the space.

Monetization: guidebooks and featured listings

Fodor’s 2.8 www.fodors.com An inviting mix of recommendations and destination guides, text, and visuals for popular destinations. The only travel guide site we reviewed with a dedicated section cruises. Fodor’s is owned by Internet Brands, which also owns FlyerTalk and WikiTravel.

Monetization: guidebooks, custom publishing programs, sponsorships, ads

Footprint NA www.footprinttravelguides.com Specializes in coverage of Latin America and the Caribbean, with coverage of South Asia and a few other destinations. Content is primarily a lead-in to printed travel guides. The “Where’s Next” segment provides ideas to help pick your next destination.

Monetization: guidebooks

Frommer’s 1.1 www.Frommers.com Website focuses on popular things to see and do in destinations. Trip Ideas section and commentary on the blog add a personal flavor.

Monetization: ads, content licensing, sponsorships and custom publishing

Insight Guides 0.2 www.insightguides.com Less a travel guide website and more of “trip/activities by local experts” booking site. The printed guidebooks take second place on this site, but there is plenty of content under the “destinations” section and blogs for the destinations we reviewed.

Monetization: books, guidebooks

Let’s Go 0.1 www.letsgo.com Written and distributed by Harvard students. Focus on budget travel in Europe, Asia, and the United States. Links to Booking.com, HomeStay.com, HostelWorld.com, WorldNomads.com (for travel insurance), and PlacePass.com, which aggregates tours and activities content from Viator, Tiqets, Ticketmaster, etc.

Monetization: guidebooks, sponsorships

Lonely Planet 14.4 www.lonelyplanet.com As befits its position as the leader of the travel guide publisher pack, the site has the most comprehensive and visually stimulating content with integration of text, photos, and video.

Monetization: guidebooks, ads, sponsorships, affiliate program, licensing

Marco Polo 0.1 www.marco-polo.com While there is content, the website is dated looking and is essentially a vehicle for the purchase of printed guidebooks.

Monetization: guidebooks, phrasebooks, maps

Michelin Travel 0.1 travelguide.michelin.com A good mix of off-the-beaten-path destinations, popular places, ratings, and reviews. Recommendations range from Peru to Jordan and South Africa. ViaMichelin.com, with 2M visits, is built around a clunky travel planning tool, with opportunities to better showcase the star rated restaurants. Michelin’s restaurant ratings are listed on Guide.Michelin.com, which had 530K visits in June. The English-language sites reviewed for this report have less traffic, as expected, than their French-language counterparts.

Monetization: ads, custom publishing, licensing, maps and guidebooks

Moon 0.2 www.moon.com Written for independent travelers, with self-guided itineraries and walking tours created by local experts/travel ambassadors.

Monetization: Imprint of Hachette Book Group’s Avalon Travel, guidebooks

Rick Steves 2.7 www.ricksteves.com Focuses on European travel, written in the signature style of TV and radio host, Rick Steves. The only site we reviewed with audio tours. Site is text heavy, with photos clustered at end.

Monetization: Imprint of Hachette Book Group’s Avalon Travel, guidebooks, tours, television, syndicated content

Rough Guides 1.6 www.roughguides.com Recently acquired by APA which also owns Insightguides.com, we expect the two sites to evolve. Currently, roughguides.com is the most closely positioned to Lonely Planet, albeit with less content and no forum.

Monetization: custom and licensed content, advertising, guidebooks, booking referrals

Source: Skift Research and company websites. Estimated total visits to desktop for May 2018 from SimilarWeb. Intended to be used for relative size comparisons.

 

News and Magazines

This section analyzes the online presence of travel and lifestyle magazine publishers and news sites with strong travel sections.
 

National Geographic:National Geographiclaunched a redesigned web experience on July 3, 2018, with an emphasis on more immersive images and storytelling text.

The new “Travel” landing page is a mix of destination information, travel articles, better integration of the popular Your Shot photo community, and links to National Geographic Expeditions. The new card layout with a slideshow of five images (seen above) is applied consistently throughout the site.

Destination and city guides organized by region are available at nationalgeographic.com/travel/destinations and remain chock full of large photographs and video that make the reader want to fall into the screen. For the traveler seeking a destination, inspiration can come from the photo of the day, travel guides, “best lists,” or expeditions. At the time of this writing, the redesign had not been fully extended into the travel guides.

Growth at National Geographic is fueled at least in part by the brand’s leading presence on social channels. National Geographic is the most followed media brand on social platforms, with more than 420 million followers globally, according to data from Shareablee.
 

TimeOut.com: This site covers 100 of the most popular destinations. With an estimated 16 million total site visits in May 2018, it is one of the more highly trafficked travel information websites. The strategy is markedly different from the other sites reviewed in this report: Time Out’s product line up around tickets, restaurants, bars and pubs, and arts and attractions, courts a higher frequency of visits even from those not planning a trip away from home. A few differentiating features include a searchable calendar of events, £29.99 Time Out Perks card for jumping the line and getting discounts/free offers, Time Out Market-branded food halls, and targeted, bookable events and product offers.

Time Out opened its first branded Time Out Market food hall in Lisbon in 2014 and is rolling the format out to other cities. The company reports 3.6 million visitors in 2017 to the Time Out Market in Lisbon.

Time Out CEO Julio Bruno wrote in the company’s annual report, “We know that 95% of our audience do something as a result of engaging with Time Out and that over 60% are from outside of the city … we no longer just write about the best things to do in the city; we increasingly make them bookable. In 2017, our customers bought 837,000 items from us, up from 618,000 in the previous year.”
 

News and Magazines: Summary of Desktop Sites

Publisher Estimated Total Visits to Desktop for May 2018 (in millions) URL Summary and Monetization Model
AFAR 0.8 www.AFAR.com Our favorite feature on AFAR.com is “Spin the Globe,” which generates a different travel guide each time. Travel guides make this site more similar to publishers like Lonely Planet than other magazine sites we reviewed. A trip planning tool allows the user to bookmark places and articles. In 2017, AFAR Media partnered with Curacity to track and earn commissions from hotel bookings generated from site content.

Monetization: magazines, content licensing, advertising, bookings

CNN Travel NA for Travel www.cnn.com/travel The travel section of the news site leads with a “Where Next” landing page that features video and a mix of eat, play, and stay content. There’s an odd mix of photography with most of the content and clip art for the 54 highlighted destinations. The site has a wide array of articles for destinations around the world. A partnership with LTI, which is a global members-only luxury travel ratings organization offers content normally available only to its members on CNN Travel’s site.

Monetization: ads, licensing

Conde Nast Traveler 4.2 www.cntraveler.com Beautifully laid out web complement to the Condé Nast Traveler magazine with inviting moving images and lots of inspirational content, especially for travelers who don’t yet know their destination. Content is organized around “The Bests” (inspiration lists), “The Places” (travel guides for popular destinations), and “Intel” (travel news, deals and podcasts). Hotel bookings are via links directly to the property site, an OTA, or phone number.

Monetization: magazine, advertising, licensing, sponsored/custom content

Departures 0.15 www.Departures.com The lifestyle website for American Express Cardholders, published by Meredith, with travel, fashion, art and culture, and home and design content. The city guides section features a luxury short list for where to stay, eat, drink, shop, and explore. Each of the 11 guides has a brief introduction, with links to best spa, hair stylist, personal shopper, etc. The landing page offers lots of initial inspiration for the undecided luxury traveler.

Monetization: American Express cardholder benefit part of Meredith Corporation Travel & Leisure Group, advertising

National Geographic 0.5 Travel.nationalgeographic.com Traffic for NationalGeographic.com is estimated much higher, at 27M and growing. The Travel landing page is a mix of destination information and travel articles, with heavy emphasis on NatGeo’s famed photography and storytelling.

Monetization: tour bookings, advertising, sponsorships, custom publishing

The New York Times NA for Travel www.nytimes.com/section/travel Travel information is organized under “36 Hours,” “Getaway,” “Frugal Traveler” and “52 Places To Go.” The landing page has a solid mix of current content from each of the above categories, with stories featuring restaurant, hotel, and attractions recommendations. The site is more text heavy than National Geographic but still well presented. The newer content is a mix of destinations beyond the perennial top 10, including Sevilla, Tbilisi, Sacramento, Chattanooga, and the Cotswolds. The search button at the top of the Travel section searches through all of the NYT’s articles; the Travel specific search is buried half way down the page.

Monetization: ads, sponsorships, paywall (subscriptions)

Outside 3.8 www.outsideonline.com If you’re a fan of adventure travel, OutsideOnline is a good option. It’s a mix of inspiration, gear (22% of the site’s traffic goes off to purchase gear on Amazon), and opinion, all focused on exploring the great outdoors.

Monetization: ads, subscriptions, product referral links

OutTraveler.com NA www.outtraveler.com Updated LGBTQ-friendly travel blogs are paired with more dated destination guides for several cities in North America, and selected cities in Europe, South America, and Asia.

Monetization: heavy ads, subscriptions

Time Out Group 16 www.timeout.com One of the more highly trafficked travel information websites. The strategy is markedly different from the other sites reviewed in this report. Time Out’s website includes content on tickets, restaurants, bars and pubs, arts and attractions. It receives a high frequency of visits even from those that live in the destination.

Monetization: tours, attractions, and events, Markets (food halls), advertising, licensing

Travel + Leisure 6 www.travelandleisure.com A wide array of text and photo content geared toward inspiring the luxury traveler. Content includes the “World’s Best” lists, trip ideas, destination guides, ideas for travel-related gifts, style content, and coverage of restaurants, hotels, and cruises.

Monetization: ads, subscriptions, product referral links, logo licensing

U.S. News and World Report 3.9 travel.usnews.com Similar to its college rankings, the site ranks travel destinations by specific categories like Best Romantic Getaways in the USA, for example. Rankings are updated annually on a rolling basis. U.S. News analyzes more than 700 destinations using a methodology that combines travelers’ opinions with expert and editor analysis. Each destination is scored in 10 categories, including sights, culture and food, nightlife, and adventure and romance, which offers a comprehensive evaluation of each destination.

Monetization: referral links to OTAs, properties, ads, rankings licensing

USA TODAY NA for usatoday.com/travel www.usatoday.com/travel The USA TODAY Travel Media Group sites rank among the top 10 most-visited travel information sites in North America as measured by comScore. Total USA TODAY site visits were estimated at 131M for May 2018. Like other newspaper sites, this offers plenty of inspiration for the undecided traveler with information on flights, destinations, and deals. Roundups of all 50 U.S. states provide deeper information on U.S. destinations. USA TODAY also maintains 10Best.com, as a separate site, and it receives 1.7M monthly visits.

Monetization: ads, referral links, logo licensing for 10 Best awards

WHERE 0.7 www.wheretraveler.com The digital version of the magazine that is often available in hotel rooms around the world. Colorful photos, video, and recommendations with snippets of text. The site links directly to hotel sites for bookings.

Monetization: ads, referral links, sponsorships, licensing

Source: Skift Research and company websites. Estimated total visits to desktop for May 2018 from SimilarWeb. Intended to be used for relative size comparisons.
 

THE DIGITAL FIRSTS

Nearly all the Digital Firsts reviewed here were launched in 2000 or after. Many are targeted at millennials, and the most popular sites rely on a community of volunteers to provide content.

 

TripAdvisor: TripAdvisor is the behemoth of the travel planning space, with 600 million reviews and opinions covering nearly 7.5 million accommodations, airlines, attractions, and restaurants. The TripAdvisor homepage emphasizes hotels, its primary revenue source, so we looked deeper for destination information. Travelers Choice awards leverage the vast amount of data TripAdvisor collects and are a goldmine of inspiration. 2018’s list is a mix of the traditionally popular destinations of London, Paris, and New York, with emerging Nairobi, Nerja and Riga.

With thousands of photos, things to do, and forum posts, research can quickly get overwhelming. Logging in allows the user to save preferences, which helps. The Travel Guides with popular itineraries and recommendations surface more popular topics; those seeking more unique experiences will dig to find nuggets from like-minded travelers. Travel planning information geared to black travel or LGBTQ-friendly destinations is difficult to find. Integration with Viator allows for easy activity booking, and hotel bookings are through multiple OTAs.


 

Thrillist: A lifestyle brand that covers food and drink, entertainment, and travel. There is heavy emphasis on the restaurant scene, but the company also produces 40 millennial-targeted travel guides to cities around the world. For instance, instead of the traditional historic sights, the London guide recommends a “Warehouse Rave” or “Mudlarking along the Banks of the Thames.”

In June 2018, Thrillist launched The City Series, Thrillist-curated weekend group trips to 10 U.S. cities in partnership with millennial travel company For the Love of Travel. Thrillist also announced a partnership with Club Getaway to launch “Camp Thrillist — the ultimate weekend summer camping experience on August 17–19th geared towards young professionals.”

Thrillist is part of Group9, which also owns The Dodo (animals), Seeker (tech/innovation) and NowThis (news). In 2016, Discovery Communications, parent of Discovery Channel, Scripps, and other channels invested $100 million for a minority stake to “expand its footprint on social platforms including Facebook and SnapChat.” The investment comes as television giants have sought ways to reach younger audiences as cord-cutting accelerates and more people gravitate to digital streaming services, as noted by MarketWatch.

 

TheCultureTrip.com: The Culture Trip has the most contemporary visual feel of the sites we reviewed. The landing page is an eclectic mix of culture, fashion, travel, and sponsored content on. Travel information for a comprehensive list of global places is accessed through a prominent search field or through regional sections. A “Wishlist” feature, enabled through Facebook or Google login, allows the user to bookmark articles and places.

There are also early indications of content personalization, with the Wishlist feature. Founder, Dr. Kris Naudts said in Forbes Magazine that he wants to “offer a voice to people and cultures typically underserved by mass media, using artificial intelligence technologies to customize and tailor content discovery across its platforms.”

A search for LGBTQ-friendly travel information resulted in 12 articles, an area of opportunity given the lack of good content elsewhere. With a reported 1 billion views, video plays a big part in Culture Trip’s growth and is embedded throughout the site. Other interesting features include a Global Anthology, with prose from 220 countries or regions.

Culture Trip raised $80 million in Series B funding in April 2018 and announced plans to launch an online travel agency to “connect Culture Trip’s rapidly growing millennial audience with hand-picked hotels, hostels and experiences.” For now, the site partners with Hotels.com for booking.

 

Atlas Obscura: Atlas Obscura bills itself as a “compendium of the world’s wonders, curiosities, and esoterica” and the “National Geographic for millennials.” For those jaded by top destinations and popular things to do, the site offers welcome relief.

The Atlas section provides destination information on nearly 1,500 cities in 183 Countries. There’s no mention of the London Eye in the British Capital. Instead, the Lilliputian Police Station and Seven Noses of Soho are the top user generated picks for the city.

The Stories tab has news, video, photo journals, and feature stories on wide range of offbeat and downright odd topics. Weekend guides provide self-guided itineraries to select destinations; events, trips and gifts supporting the quirky ethos round out the website offerings. The newly introduced Gastro Obscura is mix of foods and drinks, restaurants, and stories about food. The community is encouraged to add content, but all contributions are reviewed by the editorial team.

In addition to angel investors, funders include A+E, New York Times, and New Atlantic Ventures. The second round of funding in late 2017 raised $7.5M. Atlas Obscura’s growing VR content aspirations are available at AtlasObscura.com/vr, with a small selection for the Samsung Gear VR.


 

Wikitravel.com: This site provides travel information from a community of volunteers. A site inspired by Wikipedia, it has none of the visual flash of the other travel information sites, but has a reported 117,000 pages in English and 4.5M monthly visits. Article content on Wikitravel is owned by volunteer writers and photographers, but Internet Brands, which purchased the site in 2005, owns the trademark. Unlike Wikipedia, Wikitravel sports plenty of advertising, which has caused some controversy, with contributors reportedly decamping to Wikipedia.

The homepage provides some inspiration for the undecided traveler, with a Destination of the Month, European Cities, and more, but the real value of the site is the depth and breadth of information for places ranging from London to Madagascar. Content is generally organized around See, Do, Buy, Eat, Drink, Sleep, but many of the popular destinations have history, weather, travel maps, and other Wikitraveler-contributed information. Booking links to Clicktripz.com.


 

Matador Network: Like Culture Trip, Matador Network skews more millennial in positioning, but has the most prominent presentation of video among the sites we reviewed. There is a compelling mix of Matador Originals, with stories ranging from a beautifully told, deeply personal, Jacob’s Journey: A Maasai Warrior’s Journey Home, to the sponsored content of Roamaroo’s guide to experiencing Kissimmee, Florida.

The “Take Me Anywhere” section on the “Places” page generates recommendations of places to visit around the world, a handy tool for the undecided traveler. Matador covers all seven continents, including “How to get to Antarctica even if you’re completely broke.” Information is presented in articles by topic and in a map-based experiences section. Hotels and hostels are listed as places to stay, but there is no booking option.

Matador is the only non-black-travel site in our review with specific content for black/African American travel. It also has the most comprehensive and current LGBTQ-related travel information. The site’s active TravelStoke community can add points of interest and connect with locals and travelers through the TravelStoke app. MatadorU and Marketplace are online communities for travel journalists and bloggers.
 

Inspirock: Combines editorial content and AI to help users plan trips and is at the tech end of the editorial-technology continuum in travel planning. Co-founder Anoop Goyal told Skift Research that the website brings together information from dozens of sources with the aim of “bringing together the unstructured information found through reading and research on multiple sites and making it actionable.” Weather data, for instance, allows the algorithm to determine summer vs. winter recommendations based on travel dates. “As the user figures out a rough sketch of the trip, they can begin to refine their itinerary,” says Goyal. Inspirock has long-form editorial travel guide content on the site, along with offers to connect to a travel agent, but Goyal says they’ve found shorter snippets of content are what the traveler is looking for.

Our review found the most intriguing feature to be the region/multi-country search option, which returns a customizable daily planner with worldwide coverage. Goyal says this was developed with Inspirock’s focus on supporting longer trips to faraway places where travelers have less familiarity with the destination.

The site links to Viator for tours and activities, TripAdvisor, Airbnb, and a select list of OTA and metasearch sites for accommodations, and Skyscanner for air, plus options to connect to a local travel agent for booking assistance. In addition to building out B2C traffic, Inspirock is developing partnerships with various destination marketing organizations (DMOs), like Visit Finland.


 

The Digital Firsts: Summary of Desktop Sites

Publisher Estimated Total Visits to Desktop for May 2018 (in millions) URL Summary and Monetization Model
Atlas Obscura 9.5 www.atlasobscura.com Positioned as the “National Geographic for millennials,” with information on odd and unusual places in 183 countries. Weekend guides provide self-guided itineraries for select destinations. Events, trips, and gifts supporting the quirky ethos of the site round out its offerings. The newest sections include food and restaurant-oriented Gastro Obscura, and virtual reality content. In addition to angel investor funding, other funders include A+E, The New York Times, and New Atlantic Ventures. The second round of funding in late 2017 raised $7.5m.

Monetization: ads, trip bookings, hosted events, product referral links

Culture Trip 12.25 www.theculturetrip.com The most visually contemporary site we reviewed. Includes 3,000 articles every month on art, architecture, fashion, film and television, literature, food and drink, music, home and design, sports, technology, travel, and wellness. Culture Trip raised $80 million in funding and announced plans to launch an online travel agency to “connect Culture Trip’s rapidly growing millennial audience with hand-picked hotels, hostels and experiences.”

Monetization: ads, sponsored content, custom publishing, affiliate partners

GayTravel.com 0.55 www.gaytravel.com While not as visually pleasing as some of the other sites we reviewed, GayTravel.com has the deepest LGBTQ-targeted travel information we found, with Top Gay Travel Guides, events, itineraries focusing on this demographic. Advertisers link to relevant deals and trips. Booking links directly to property site.

Monetization: ads, sponsorships, partnerships

Inspirock 3 www.inspirock.com Inspirock combines editorial content and artificial intelligence to help travelers plan trips. Our review found the most intriguing feature to be the region/multi-country search option, which returns a customizable daily planner with booking options.

Monetization: trip bookings, licensing and partnerships

Matador Travel Network 3.25 https://matadornetwork.com Includes the most prominent presentation of video among the sites we reviewed. There is a compelling mix of Matador Originals and sponsored stories. Information is presented in articles by topic and in a map-based experiences section. Hotels and hostels are listed as places to stay, but there is no booking option. Matador was the only site that wasn’t specifically geared toward black travel that had content for this demographic. It also has the most comprehensive and current LGBTQ content.

Monetization: custom and branded content, sponsorships, ads

Nomadic Matt 1.14 www.Nomadicmatt.com The site has evolved from a travel blog offering tips on budget travel to include destination guides, books, and a community forum. The guides briefly cover things to see and do and also provide in-depth advice on typical costs and budgeting. It’s the only site we reviewed that had a chatbot for assistance.

Monetization: affiliate links, guidebooks, courses

Roads & Kingdoms 0.29 www.roadsandkingdoms.com This travel and culture journal is a strong mix of travel features, photo essays, and “know-before-you-go” segments. The focus is on off-the-beaten path destinations with intriguing personal perspectives, and unconventional travel guides. Anthony Bourdain was a partner in the publisher and his distinct voice is resonates through the site. The writing is exceptional and draws the traveler down paths less traveled.

Monetization: custom and branded content, editorial consulting

The International Gay & Lesbian Travel Association 0.85 www.iglta.org A listing of LGBTQ-welcoming tourism businesses with a few articles on gay travel and excerpts of tours and activities, along with special offers.

Monetization: ads, events, corporate sponsorships

Thrillist 16.26 www.thrillist.com There is heavy emphasis on the restaurant scene, but there are also 40 millennial-targeted travel guides to cities around the world. New ventures by Thrillist include weekend trips for city-dwelling millennials and a Camp Thrillist. Thrillist is part of Group9.

Monetization: ads, trips and tours, sponsorships.

Travel Noire 0.12 www.travelnoire.com Travel information, deals, and resources provided by “individuals from the African diaspora, who reside all over the globe.” The Explore section is a travel blog, with deals and personal travel and culture stories. Guides provide 30-page downloadable destination PDFs for $25. There are also bookable itineraries through TN Experiences. Of note is the Compass coaching program to help aspiring travelers make more informed travel choices or become more independent travelers.

Monetization: ads, affiliate links, courses, trip bookings, sponsorships, custom publishing

TripAdvisor 164.4 www.tripadvisor.com 600M reviews and opinions covering nearly 7.5M accommodations, airlines, attractions, and restaurants. Travelers Choice awards leverage the vast amount of data TripAdvisor collects and are a goldmine of inspiration. With thousands of photos, things to do, and forum posts, research can quickly get overwhelming, but users can save preferences, which helps organizing ideas. Travel planning information geared to black travel or LGBTQ-friendly destinations is difficult to find. Links to Viator for tours and activities booking and multiple OTAs for hotel bookings.

Monetization: booking referrals, ads, content licensing, business subscriptions

uTrip NA www.utrip.com Information is compiled by uTrip from a diverse array of sources, then filtered by the user in up to 16 categories such as history, food, nightlife, and budget. The site is most useful for figuring out what to do at a destination than it is for initial destination selection. It could be a good application for the bleisure market (those travelers who extend business trips into leisure trips).

Monetization: tech licensing, affiliate links/booking referrals

Vagabondish NA www.vagabondish.com Quirky feature stories, interesting takes on popular destinations, news, and tips set this site apart from others. The reader might have to look at a few other sites to round out their travel planning, but they’ll know how to prep for a cross-country road trip with a cat.

Monetization: ads, sponsored and custom content, affiliate links

Wikitravel 4.5 https://wikitravel.org The homepage provides some inspiration for the undecided traveler, with sections like “Destination of the Month,” “European Cities,” and more. but the real value of the site is the depth and breadth of information for places ranging from London to Madagascar. Content is generally organized around the categories of See, Do, Buy, Eat, Drink, Sleep, but many of the popular destinations also have sections on history, weather, travel maps, and other crowdsourced information. Booking links to Clicktripz.com.

Monetization: ads, booking links

Source: Skift Research. Estimated total visits to desktop for May 2018 from SimilarWeb. Intended to be used for relative size comparisons.
 

SERVED WITH A SIDE OF TRAVEL INFORMATION

The websites reviewed in this section are large players, mostly focused on booking travel products, but also include a good amount of travel information and inspiration to help travelers make plans.
 

Airbnb: Much of the content on Airbnb is related to its short-term rental marketplace product rather than generically to a destination. A traveler with no destination in mind could easily scroll through “Homes around the world,” “Experiences in the spotlight,” or the new “Airbnb Plus” selection and decide on where to go. Travel information, in its traditional sense is relatively thin in the context of this research. Guidebooks, a compilation of experiences by Airbnb hosts are available for 36 (at time of writing) cities/countries. Each guidebook features 30 local spots, that were voted on by hosts.

Stories is a feature of the Airbnb website that launched in 2018 clips together short video and photos into a slideshow.

 

The Neighborhoods section provides filters to help travelers decide where to stay in a selection of 23 cities.

 

The Places section includes audio guides, “near me now,” and bookable restaurant recommendations from local hosts.

Reuters reported in February that there have been more than 260 million home- and room-rentals through Airbnb since the company launched a decade ago. The company announced plans to become more full-service and expects “Experiences”, which travelers can use to book guided tours or activities hosted by a local resident, will be on track to have 1 million guest bookings in a year.
 

Booking.com: Booking.com’s homepage offers some travel inspiration, with hotel reviews in cities, “destinations we love” and links to country guides. The resulting pages are chock full of hotel information and traveler reviews.

Other “Travel Guides” and “Articles” for the same destinations are accessible through a different path that determined researchers might be able to find: we only found them through external searches. The Travel Guides have photos, video, and snippets of text for popular things to do and neighborhoods to stay in. The Destination Finder under “Popular Cities” presents community feedback in the form of answers to traveler questions.

The Articles section is a fairly deep blog, with content on food, sports, beach/nature, and family travel. Hashtags make it easy to find related information within the blog.

It remains to be seen how Booking.com evolves the content pages as competition heats up in the online travel industry.
 

Expedia.com: Destination information on Expedia.com is not intuitive to find. There’s plenty of information on Las Vegas, for example, with activities, traveler reviews, hotels and links to its Viewfinder blog. Navigation is confusing, and the favoriting feature is only somewhat helpful. For the traveler who doesn’t know where she’s going yet, the Daily Deals could inspire a selection.

Filters on the Viewfinder travel blog allow the user to search popular destinations by number of travelers, interests, and occasions. Destinations are presented alphabetically rather than chronologically, making it appear that content is not regularly updated.

 

Google: Google launched Destinations for desktop in the fall of 2016. The travel guides are accessed through a destination search on Google or through a more specific Google search, like “Las Vegas destination guide.”

Each Google Destination has a travel guide with photos and introductory text, suggested day plans, pricing from Google Flights and Hotel Finder, and popular articles from other sources. While popular destinations had the deepest content, more obscure places like Madagascar and Cartagena, Colombia still had enough information to help plan and execute a trip. Country and region searches (e.g. Eastern Europe) work similarly.
 

Served With a Side of Travel Information: Summary of Desktop Sites

Publisher Estimated Total Visits to Desktop for May 2018 (in millions) URL Summary and Monetization Model
Airbnb 79 www.airbnb.com A traveler with no destination in mind could easily scroll through the “Homes around the world,” “Experiences in the spotlight,” or the new “Airbnb Plus” selections to help decide where to go. Travel information, in its traditional sense is thin. Guidebooks, a compilation of experiences by Airbnb hosts are available for 36 (at time of writing) cities and countries, and the guides called Neighborhoods currently include over 23 major cities.

Monetization: booking fees and service fees

Booking.com 443 www.booking.com Booking.com’s Travel Guides have photos, video, and snippets of text for popular things to do and neighborhoods to stay in. The Destination Finder under the sections of popular cities presents community feedback through answers to traveler questions. The Articles blog covers food, sports, beach/nature, and family travel.

Monetization: booking fees and sponsored listings

Expedia 62 www.expedia.com Destination information on Expedia is not intuitive to find or navigate, but there is plenty of information on popular destinations in the “Travel Guides” section and the Viewfinder blog.

Monetization: booking fees and sponsored listings

Google Destinations NA Google Search (e.g. Las Vegas) Comprehensive and easily accessible through Google search, each Google Destination has a travel guide, suggested day plans, pricing from Google Flights and Hotel Finder, and articles from other sources.

Monetization: ads

Source: Skift Research and company websites. Estimated total visits to desktop for May 2018 from SimilarWeb. Intended to be used for relative size comparisons
 

KEY TAKEAWAYS

Content differentiation drives usage, publishers take cues from social media

  • Video, shorter text blocks, slideshows, hashtags, and engaging photographs and reviews from a community with shared interests: travel guide publishers are taking cues from social media sites for their websites and it’s working. While National Geographic is the poster child for this trend, many of the thriving websites we reviewed have adopted this strategy.
  • The web is a firehose of information but lists and blogs help to narrow the field for the undecided traveler. When done well, as with Lonely Planet, U.S. News & World Report, or TripAdvisor, it can inspire travelers to look beyond their normal inclinations.
  • The field of “popular destinations” coverage is overcrowded, but publishers like Atlas Obscura are taking a gleeful approach to the peculiar or focusing on niche markets like adventure travel as Outside.com does. Digging deeper into interesting places further elevates the opportunity for publishers in an age of permanxiety. If the resurgence of printed guides is any indication, there is still a need for storytelling — the history of a place and its people. Since this is expensive to create and ages quickly, and search engines reward newer content, blogs and community reviews are important.
  • Most of the sites we reviewed blend text with photographs and video (some better than others), but few of the sites provided immersive visual experiences alongside the content.
  • Content for the emerging Black Travel segment isn’t visible on mainstream sites, except for Matador Network. Sites like Travel Noire and others profiled recently by Skift are filling the void, but partnerships would be timely.
  • Travel can be an anxious experience for the aging and those with disabilities. Beyond cursory mentions of “wheelchair accessible,” none of the sites we reviewed provided the type of personalized guidance needed to support this growing market. A 2017 article by Smarter Travel points to some resources, notably TravelGuide.org, but this too is an area of opportunity.

 

Desktop today, but personalization and mobile will continue to drive the future

  • Websites dominate for pre-purchase planning today, since the larger screen lends itself better to the initial deep-dive research. As data-driven personalization takes hold in initial travel planning, we expect the form factor to shift. More personalization = less content to wade through = smaller form factor.
  • Location data already drives event and attraction purchases for leisure travelers. We see the bleisure market as an opportunity for travel planning sites to inspire more in-destination experiences.
  • While the notion of personalization has been around for several years, we saw little evidence of it in our research. Admittedly, good personalization will take multiple touchpoints with the user, so many of the sites we explored wouldn’t be able to deliver as we were using these sites for the first time as part of the review process. However, there is still huge potential for these sites to provide more tailored, if not fully personalized, recommendations.

 

Voice is to be determined

Gartner predicts that by 2020, 30% of web browsing sessions will be done without a screen. Lonely Planet, Nomadic Matt and travel publishers have introduced Amazon Alexa skills, and travelers are beginning to see voice enablement in hotels, but exactly how that evolves for travel planning is still to be seen.
 

Monetize or die

The largest site we reviewed had 443M visits in May, and the smallest, less than 100K. There will always be room for niche players, but the consolidation of search into a single dominant player, like Google, continues to put pressure on publishers. Without visibility, there’s no traffic, and without traffic, no monetization. In addition to social and search visibility, publishers drive direct traffic through unique offerings, referrals, and email lists.

We saw evidence of monetization done badly, with takeover ads so intrusive that we couldn’t read the content. Time Out’s strategy of taking the guidebook into the street with curated events, unique offers and a perks card is one worth watching. Vendors like Curacity can help attribute conversions from publisher content.

As we mentioned earlier, the legacy travel guide publishers are most at risk for undifferentiated content. We see opportunities for consolidation among that set — New York Times partnering with Fodor’s, for instance, or Expedia licensing content from U.S. News & World Report.
 

Endnotes and Further Reading